I read somewhere recently, something that I sort of agree with, that male characters are written as people first and female characters are written as tropes. Whereas, in my last post, I put forth that both were written as tropes and that men just had more terrible archetypes to choose from. Nowhere is this more obvious than in an action movie.
There just aren’t a lot of females in action movies. In fact, there aren’t a lot of female action “stars.” Sigourney Weaver, Milla Jovavich, Angelina Jolie and to some extent Michelle Rodriguez. As much as I like Michelle Rodriguez, she very, very rarely takes lead roles and is usually part of an ensemble or a side character. It’s hard to be a star when you aren’t the ‘leading lady.’ I put her out there because her name is going to come up when you say ‘action star.’ Kate Beckinsale plays Selene in Underworld, but there is a distinct uncomfortableness she has with the role that shines through her acting.
In comparison to the very long list of male action stars I can name, I’ve got less than five females I’d even consider to be stars. I’d put Rebecca Romjin-Stamos on that list for her amazing work as Mystique, however she hasn’t really done anything else (outside of the Librarians). Kiera Knightley, despite her work in Pirates, isn’t an action star. The same for Natalie Portman, despite Star Wars prequels. Rhonda Rousey is a big name right now, but the verdict is still out on whether or not she can act. Charlize Theron is working her way onto the list, slowly. Zoe Saldana seems to think she’s a female action star. Let’s also be honest here, Linda Hamilton had one good Terminator movie. Lena Headey did more with the role on the Sarah Connor Chronicles. Speaking of Sarah Connor Chronicles, I wish I could put Summer Glau on this list.
So, where are the actresses who maybe could be action stars? They’re off making romcoms and dramas and even comedies, because that is where the work is. On the big screen if they are in action movies, they are more likely to be playing the girlfriend or the damsel in distress. It’s frustrating, at least for those of us who want to see females kicking butt and taking names. Part of this is a culture issue with action movies themselves.
Action movies tend to be the ultimate male power fantasy. Thus, they tend to be populated by a bunch of males reeking of too much testosterone as they hose down the decks with it and bullet casings. In a male power fantasy world, there are very few places for women. They are either your nurse, your girlfriend, the one you’re rescuing or rarely your shield buddy. And then a lot of times, even if she is a ‘shield buddy’ she still gets slotted into the ‘sexy kickbutt love interest’ stereotype. The place where this type of sexy tough chic love interest stereotype is really egregious is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Natasha Romanoff played by Scarlett Johansson (who isn’t an action star yet either.) She has her moments, but most the time she is just the love interest. You could remove her from the movies or replace her with any other agent and it wouldn’t really matter.
A good example of the male power fantasy is one of my favorite franchises, the Expendables. Let’s take the first movie, would it have been as strong if the male characters had been replaced with female and vice versa. I say yes, if the story had remained the same. Bernadette Ross worried about some hot headed male artist she left behind on a banana republic island as her soul sister, tattoo artist, Tool gives a little monologue about when she felt she lost her humanity. Noel Christmas Lee coming back to find her boyfriend has taken up with an abuser, tracking the bitch down and scaring the shit out of them so they’ll leave her man alone. However, we all know that if the movie had been conceived as a bunch of women first, it would be vastly different.
Look no further than the planned ‘official’ plot lines of the Expendabelles for proof. The Expendables, the tough male mercenaries, are charged with getting a Chinese businessmen. They whip together some zany vehicles and go in guns blazing. The Expandabelles, the ‘tough female’ mercenaries, are charged with getting a doctor. They whip out their sheathe dresses, stiletto heels and killer lipstick. (This isn’t at all sexist. /sarcasm) That is the male power fantasy at play. Our female action heroes have to be super sexy! (Not. That was more sarcasm by the way.) For the marketing! And that was not why people wanted to see an all female Expendables cast!
I own sheathe dresses and I have my heels. Here is the thing about most sheathe dresses. They are made of fairly thick woven material in order to keep their shape, most often a cotton ponte. This fabric has next to no stretch whatsoever. So, unless you’re wearing a Herve Leger bandage dress (and I’d say not even then but at least the Herve Leger has some stretch to it) or even a pretty comfy t-shirt dress, then you aren’t going to be doing any fancy kick butt moves. And running in heels is an art form, especially anything over two inches.
A kick butt female mercenary isn’t going to walk into a dangerous situation armed with no more than her killer smile. She, like a male mercenary, is going to strap on body armor, grab as many guns as she can carry, put on some grease paint and maybe throw a few grenades. (Or maybe I just like grenades.) It is insulting to the female gender to do otherwise. Let’s leave sexpionage to the bad spy flicks (and the French and the Russians.)
Make no mistake, most the female action stars are still some sort of male power fantasy. Lara Croft, male power fantasy, Selene, definitely a male power fantasy (corset cat suit? Really?), Alice, male power fantasy, every female comic book hero, check, male power fantasy. At least, Lara Croft dresses somewhat more practically than most on that list.
Hollywood sees the female character as a marketing tool. And part of that marketing tool is how much sex appeal does she have. A female action star who puts on body armor and grease paint isn’t in their to do list because they don’t see how body armor and grease paint can be marketable. Body armor and grease paint and Doc Martins aren’t sexy (at least to them.) Once again, they are trying to fit the male power fantasy where all the women are beautiful and use their sex appeal to kill. They don’t want to hide the female body from the male gaze because then why would the boys watch the movie? (Umm, that’s pretty degrading to men right there too.)
Hell, it’s hard to find female fighter pilots in movies (maybe it is those unsexy jumpsuits.) In fact, most of the female action roles lately have been in action comedies or comic book properties. These movies still put the female heroes into secondary roles or even worse, treat the female action role as some sort of joke, which is belittling.
Despite the success of Alien, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider, Hollywood is still choosing not to do these types of roles. They are choosing to write females as tropes first and as people second and using ‘sex’ as marketing/marketability. Until they choose not to do that, we’re going to suffer from poorly made female action movies like Elektra (Jennifer Garner) and Catwoman (Halle Berry) where they think that a skin tight outfit and some high heels is a replacement for character development. It’s frustrating, since I’d love to see an all female version of the Expendables that embodies the true spirit of the Expendables, do or die missions and lots of explosions.
Jing a ling, jing a ling.